I want Pope Francis to do well.
I’ve never made a secret of how his election thrilled me. I’ve never hidden how I have felt his gestures great and small move me and challenge me to be a better Christian. Time and again, I’ve received his calls to the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as piercing clarions. His championship of the migrant and the pauper and the widow and the orphan and the downtrodden everywhere are mighty convictions of my soul.
I don’t believe he is an enemy of the faith or consciously committed to the destruction of Holy Tradition.
If I did believe it, I don’t know what difference it would make to me in the practice of my profession, primarily concerned as it is with discovering and then saying what leaders have done and explaining fairly and fully as possible why they have done what they’ve done (or sometimes what they’re thinking about doing).
All that begins with listening, carefully. “Listen!” is the theme of the 2022 World Day for Social Communications, announced last week. It’s excellent advice to anyone, especially when we don’t want to hear it – and I mean “we” when I say it – only, it is indispensable to the journalist who would do the job well.
It also raises another question: Listen to whom?
As my friend, veteran Vaticanologist Andrea Gagliarducci put it in a piece he published recently, “Listening, therefore, is a fundamental starting point, but understanding who and what to listen to is the main theme.”
He asks – with the powerful rhetorical effectiveness of one who asks pointedly and earnestly – whether we ought to listen to Cardinal Sarah (the olim prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship), or Cardinal Czerny (Pope Francis’s point man on migrants)? Archbishop Viganò (the celebrity clerical whistleblower of 2018), or Archbishop Fernandez (a papal favorite and theologian of frequent papa recourse, reputed ghostwriter of Amoris laetitia)?
“Stricken by a quasi-political mentality,” writes Gagliarducci, “religious journalism is increasingly becoming a megaphone for a polarization of positions that seem to put aside the crucial issue of faith, even when they speak about it explicitly.” Faith, he says, “appears exploited, bent to support adverse positions,” in a partisan game.
“Listening,” wrote Gagliarducci, “means freeing oneself from prejudices,” and embracing a sort of “epistemological humility” that Gagliarducci has been at some pains to explain for a good while, now. For a journalist on the Church beat, he says “it means above all starting to read events by listening to history, before people; and seeing facts, before prejudices.” Gagliarducci is not wrong.
One way out of the quagmire is for both scribblers and readers to pay attention more to what their subjects do, than to what they say. That’s not to say that what popes and prelates say is unimportant, but it does help us all keep firmly in mind that part of their threefold munus is to govern the Church, and that journalists need to be concerned with how they are doing that.
What the powerful say about what they’re doing, or have done, or are thinking about doing, is important. The journalist’s job is to thread a narrow and tricky needle: not to take their protestations at face value, while also avoiding undue suspicion.
Listening is how the journalist comes to know what questions to ask, and of whom.
The journalist’s questions are no different from those any fellow on the street would ask, if only he knew to ask them. The journalist’s task is first to know what to ask, then to ask the needful questions of the right people in the right way, and then to share the questions and the answers received. That’s it.
We try to understand the circumstances that give rise to action and elucidate how the powerful reach their decisions and apply them to circumstance. Journalists’ personal opinions really don’t come into that business very much. At least, they shouldn’t. Everyone has an opinion. The journalist’s task is to see that readers’ opinions are informed.
When journalists do share their opinions, they should be exemplary: of that circumspection, which ought to come from the disciplined cultivation of charity and justice. We are all tempted to think the best of those, with whom we agree. We are all tempted to think the worst of those, with whom we disagree.
To think all the good we can of everyone is a hard thing, especially when we want it to be a very great deal of good or have good reason to suspect it is very little, indeed. We must learn it. To practice the discovery of just how much good that is, and then to practice the art of saying it without fear or favor, is harder still.
That’s one reason why we all need to care less – or better – to care differently, about what the guys in the big hats say.
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